Dante and the Fedeli d'Amore

Bruce MacLennan

In class I mentioned the Fedeli d'Amore in connection with Dante's idealization of Beatrice. The following notes are intended to provide additional background information on the Fedeli in order to provide a context for Dante's poetry. I suggest that you first review An Interpretation of Courtly Love, which provides background and introductory material for the following discussion. I have also made some selections of relevant poetry. I welcome any questions, comments or corrections.

As we have seen, there is an ancient tradition of viewing love as a vehicle for ascending to the divine; it goes back at least as far as Plato (Symposium, Phaedrus). It can be discerned in the story of Cupid and Psyche, in the overall plot of the Golden Ass, and in the Plotinian Ascent (especially in its higher stages). It was adapted to a Christian framework by St. Augustine (354-430), in his Dimensions of the Soul, and St. Bonaventura (1221-1274), in The Mind's Road to God, which is the form that seems to be used in Dante's Commedia. (See Sources for the Dantean Ascent.) More generally, the "mysteries of love," especially in their Neoplatonic form, had a profound influence on the mystical branches of Judaism (e.g. Cabala), Christianity and Islam (e.g. Sufism). Here I will review some of the direct influences on Dante, beginning with the mystical poetry of the Sufis and the troubadours.

Arab Mystical Poetry

Several different lines of development converge at Dante. The first is the tradition of Arab mystical poetry, which expresses longing and love for God, who is addressed as "the Beloved." This tradition began in the ninth century, but is most familiar to us in the poetry of Rumi (1207-1273), who lived some two generations before Dante (see Examples of the Poetry of Divine Love).

Arab mystical poetry draws from many sources, including Neoplatonism and Manichaeanism, in its idea of love and union with the divine, ideas which were considered heretical because, according to orthodox Islam, a finite being (such as a person) cannot love an infinite being (such as God). Indeed, several Sufi poets were tortured and executed for heresy, including al-Hallaj (857-922), known as "the martyr of mystical love." The charges against him said, "To adore God from love alone is the crime of the Manichaeans..." Therefore it was necessary to be somewhat vague about the identity of "the Beloved"; also, inebriation was used as a metaphor for the intoxication of divine love. Al-Hallaj wrote,

I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I.
We are two spirits dwelling in one body,
If thou seest me, thou seest Him;
And if thou seest Him, thou seest us both.

It is interesting to note that the nearest contemporary analogues to the Commedia come from the Islamic world. For example, in Sura XVII of the Koran, Mohammed is transported by Gabriel from Mecca to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and from there he is taken to Heaven. Dante may have been familiar with a translation (Libro della Scala) of an Arabic popular text describing the Prophet's visit to the other world. There are also many parallels between the Commedia and the Meccan Revelations of Ibn al-‘Arabi, a Sufi poet.

Dante's innovation of placing Purgatory on a mountain may have Middle Eastern origins. In Muslim tradition, as well as in Hindu, Buddhist and Middle Eastern traditions, mountain tops are places where the gods are appeased and by which heaven may be approached (recall Moses on Mt. Sinai and the Tower of Babel). In many of these traditions, as in the Paradisio (cantos 31-33), the World Mountain is surmounted by a sacred tree at which a goddess figure sits dispensing the waters of life.

The Troubadours and Courtly Love

There were many routes along which these Arabic poetic traditions came to Europe, and especially to Provence and Poitou in France, the birthplace of courtly love and the troubadour tradition.[1] In addition to coming back with the Crusaders, these poetic traditions came across the Pyrenees from Spanish lands, which had learned them from the Arabs in Andalusia. Thus it is not too surprising that half of the surviving songs of the first known troubadour, William of Poitiers, agree with a certain form of Arab mystical poetry (the zajel) in their detailed metrical structure and conventional expressions.

William (1071-1127), sixth Count of Poitiers and ninth Duke of Aquitaine, was a descendant of William the Great and Agnes of Burgundy, who established connections with the Neoplatonic academy at Chartres in the early eleventh century. Among other Platonic ideas, this school viewed the World Soul (Psyche ton Panton) of Plato as a force pervading the universe, a source of inspiration and wisdom. (In Plotinian terms, this is the World Soul between physical reality and the Nous, the Spiritual or Intellectual Principle.) They identified the World Soul with the Holy Spirit, an idea that was considered heretical.

Several poets were influenced by these Neoplatonic ideas. For example, Bernard of Sylvester wrote (c.1142) a poem in which Nature comes to Nous to beg for help in ordering chaotic Matter (Sylva); other goddesses are recruited to help in the creation of humans. Also in the twelfth century, Alan of Lille wrote a poem in which he is restored to spiritual health by a series of questions and answers administered by a beautiful goddess, Nature. (This is reminiscent of Boethius' Consolation, whose figure of divine Philosophia was very popular at this time.) Alan also wrote a work in which Prudence ascends to heaven in order to admit the soul of a perfect man. This reminds us of the Commedia, and in fact Dante was influenced by Alan.

These Neoplatonic ideas meshed with changes in women's status, which had been improving after a long decline since ancient Roman times. This was a result of many influences, including:

  1. feudal society, which through marriage alliances and inheritance laws gave more independence to women,
  2. the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,
  3. contact with Celtic society, where women were more respected (and indeed viewed as divine and prophetic by the druids),
  4. the chivalric Arthurian romances (of which Dante was very fond).


Also influential was Catharism, the "Church of Love," which we discussed in connection with Wolfram's Parzival (see Manichaeanism). Beginning in the third century, as we saw, these ideas spread across Europe and as far east as China. In particular they were welcomed in the Languedoc, since the idea of good and evil deities was compatible with surviving Celtic traditions of light and dark gods. The Cathars had the God of Love and the Creator (or Great Arrogant), who had created the material world, which was considered evil. They contrasted their Church of Love with the Church of Rome: AMOR vs. ROMA. (Indeed, when Rome was founded by Aeneas, the son of Venus, as was customary it was given three names: a common name Roma, a sacral name Flora, and a secret name Amor.)

You will recall from the discussion of Manichaeanism that the Elect were banned from sexual relations and the Faithful were discouraged from them. This was because, according to Gnostic and Manichaean ideas, souls were first tempted to unite with matter (i.e., to become embodied) by the beautiful form of woman, created as a snare by the creator god. On the other hand, salvation could be won from a female divinity, existing from the beginning of time, known by various names: Maria, Wisdom (Sophia, Sapientia), Faith (Pistis), etc. She had born Jesus to show souls the way to escape from matter and reunite with their angelic spirits, who had remained in heaven. This divine feminine figure, who was also called the Form of Light, resided in the believer's spirit as well as in heaven (consistent with the Neoplatonic Nous). She met the believer's soul after he died, and greeted it with a kiss and salute. (For the kiss and salute, see Courtly Love.)

Catharism was apparently quite popular among the nobility of southern France and Cathar themes are pervasive in the troubadours' songs. No doubt some of the troubadours were practicing Cathars, while others were simply reflecting the values of their patrons. The Cathar belief system was poetic rather than rational, and so music played an essential role in maintaining the faith of the believers.

As discussed in Manichaeanism, the Elect (who were called "Goodmen" among the Cathars) were initiated in a ceremony called the consolamentum, because in it they received the gift of the Holy Spirit the Consolator. The bishops placed their hands on the initiate's head or shoulders (analogous to dubbing a knight) and bestowed the Kiss of Peace, which then was passed from Elect to Elect. Henceforth the newly "consoled" Elect received a "salute" of three bows from the assembled Believers.

In addition to an increasing appreciation for the feminine principle, both mortal and divine, the eleventh century saw a revaluation of physical love. Some poets had discovered that being in passionate love could change their consciousness, and so they began to see love and sex as means of spiritual illumination. Ancient texts such as Ovid's works on love (The Art of Love and The Cure of Love), which dealt with love's transformative power, were read with new appreciation, but the empire was officially Christian, and so these ideas had to be fit into a more or less orthodox Christian framework.

The Cathars called themselves Christian, but many of their beliefs were considered heretical by the Church. However there were competing, more orthodox movements within the Church, which attempted to accommodate the same psycho-sociological developments. For example, Joachim of Fiore (c.1132-1202) prophesied the dawning of an "Age of the Spirit" in which the Holy Spirit would incarnate as a woman. Also, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090?-1153) taught the mystical ascent of the soul through Love in his sermons on the Song of Solomon and transformed the Cistercian order, emphasizing mysticism devoted to the Virgin Mary and divine Love. Although he competed avidly against the Cathars, it is worth noting that he said about them, "No sermons are more thoroughly Christian than theirs, and their morals are pure." (Recall that St. Bernard was Dante's sixth and final guide in the Commedia.)

However, as Anderson [ADM 43] has said, the Albigensians (a Cathar sect) presented "the greatest doctrinal threat that the medieval Church had to meet," and so the Albigensian Crusade was declared in 1208 and lasted until 1229. De Rougemont [dR 111n1] has described the crusade as "the first genocide or systematic massacre, of a people recorded by our 'Christian' western history." The Church destroyed the Cathars' mountain-top castle Montségur, traditionally identified with Monsalvat, the Grail Castle; after it fell, 211 Elect men and women were executed by burning. (See Manichaeanism for more on the crusade.) Although this catastrophe forced the Cathars underground, it scattered the troubadours and their heretical ideas throughout Europe.

Similarly, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122?-1204) brought her troubadours with her when she departed from her Court of Love to marry first Louis VII of France and later to marry Henry of England. In 1170 she established her Court in Poitiers (where William, the first known troubadour, had lived thirty years before); it became a hotbed of courtly love. She was patroness of Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote the earliest versions of the Arthurian stories, including the Grail quest (a generation earlier than Wolfram's Parzival); he claimed to have got the story from Countess Marie of Champagne, Eleanor's daughter.

In their celebration of Love, the troubadours wrote in several different styles. Trobar leu was clear or easy poetry, which was used for love on the planes of the physical world and the imagination, that is, the Neoplatonic spheres of matter and soul. On the other hand, the obscure trobar clus, the enclosed, hermetic style, was used for transcendent love, that is, love in the sphere of Nous. Between these was the trobar rics, the rich or elaborate style, which depended on elaborate structures but tried to strike a balance between obscurity and clarity; Dante's style was much influenced by it. In some cases obscurity was necessary to avoid charges of heresy.

Although the Cathar leaders had been exterminated and many of their congregations destroyed, their ideas did not vanish, but reappeared in many sects and movements. These had in common an ambitious spirituality incorporating a doctrine of "radiant joy," praise of poverty, anti-clericalism, vegetarianism and an egalitarian attitude that sometimes verged on communism. Heretical beliefs, especially denial of the Trinity, were also common.

The Templars

It is necessary at this point to mention the Knights Templars, a military-religious order charged with guarding the Temple in Jerusalem and other sacred sites in the Holy Land, and also with protecting pilgrims on their way to and from it. They were formally founded in 1118 and soon won the blessing of St. Bernard (Dante's sixth guide). They had their headquarters in Jerusalem until it fell to the Moslems (1187), and are considered a major (but not the only) vehicle for bringing Islamic mystical ideas into Europe. Certainly their military duties obliged them to become intimately familiar with Muslim beliefs, and perhaps to infiltrate Islamic groups.

Claims of Dante's connections with the Templars first surfaced in the seventeenth century. They were investigated and defended especially by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), who went so far as to claim that the Commedia represents Dante's initiation into La Fede Santa (The Sacred Faith), a "tertiary order" of lay people. (Such orders were permitted by the "rule" of many religious orders, including the Templars.) Certainly the Commedia contains considerable symbolism connected with the Templars and the Temple. Anderson [ADM 279] adds,

it is possible that, through this proximity, Sufi ideas and practices, founded as they were on many of the same Neoplatonic traditions that nourished Christian mysticism, and with the added appeal of the Perennial Philosophy, infiltrated among the members of the order and thence to the lay members of the confraternity of the order known as La Fede Santa, to which Dante is supposed by supporters of the Templar theory to have belonged.

The theory is perhaps considered exaggerated by modern scholars, for there were other vehicles for Sufi influence on Dante, but it has had recent defenders among Dante experts (e.g., Luigi Valli, René Guénon).

In any case, the Templars were exterminated in 1307-12 (about the time Dante was writing the Inferno) on grounds of heresy, but a more important reason was their financial and political power. Nevertheless, secrecy and obscurity were necessary afterwards, since any defense of the Templars or their ideas could be interpreted as heresy. Anderson [ADM 279] concedes that, "Many of the most obscure allegorical passages [of the Commedia] receive their most coherent explanation when related to the crisis of the Templar order."

The Fedeli d'Amore

The Fedeli d'Amore (The Faithful of Love) were a group of poets practicing an erotic spirituality, which can be seen as an application of chivalric ideas (including courtly love) to the regeneration of society. Anderson [ADM 80] describes them as, "rare spirits who were struggling to devise a code of life that retained from chivalry the idea of nobility, while making it depend on personal virtue instead of inherited wealth and breeding, and that preserved spiritual aspirations not unlike those of some mendicants without demanding a life of withdrawal or celibacy." They "formed a closed brotherhood devoted to achieving a harmony between the sexual and emotional sides of their natures and their intellectual and mystical aspirations" [ADM 85]. The Fedeli were expected to write only about their own mystical experiences, so actual practice was mandatory, and they apparently had a system of degrees representing the levels of spiritual progress.

Their system was based on psychological and spiritual doctrines, probably including a means of divine ascent through Love based on the six stages of St. Bonaventura (see Dantean Ascent), which correspond to Dante's six guides. Their practice also included training the imagination to hold the image of the Beloved in the form of one's Lady, since the pure light of the One would be too much to bear. Some of the group's doctrine was set forth by their leader, Guido Cavalcanti (1250-1300), in his long and elaborately structured poem Donna me prega ("A lady bids me..."). Ficino and other members of the Platonic Academy considered it to be "a supreme Neoplatonic statement of love" [ADM 83], although it is more Averroist-Aristotelian in content, and others have even called it a statement of Averroist doctrine in a secret language. On the other hand, Valli regarded Donna me prega as the manifesto of a secret group devoted to Sapientia (Wisdom). (Dante's perspective on Love was in fact more Platonic than Guido's.)

Rossetti apparently originated the idea that the poetry of the Fedeli contains heresies, which were disguised to hide them from the Inquisition. Many terms can be interpreted in two or more ways, but it is not so clear whether this was deliberate secrecy or a symbolic language automatically understandable to initiates. Certainly secrecy is advocated in the works of Dante and his contemporaries, and there was also a tradition of such double-entendres in the troubadours' trobar clus (closed or hermetic poetry), but Dante's poetry was influenced more by the trobar rics (elaborate poetry), which tried to balance clarity and obscurity. In time Dante and the Fedeli transformed the troubadours' symbolism into their dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style), which was intended to embody the beautiful doctrines of the Fedeli in correspondingly beautiful words and meters. Nevertheless, they were explicit in stating that the Lady should be interpreted symbolically.

There are many similarities of style and content between Sufi poetry and the poetry of the Fedeli, especially in their idealization of the Beloved as Holy Wisdom or Intelligence. This has led some of Valli's followers to propose that the Fedeli were a tarika, or secret order of Sufi dervishes. However, there were many other sources for Islamic influence, including the troubadour tradition (already discussed) and pilgrims returning from the Holy Land, where they would have heard from Muslim guides about the Prophet's ascent. The Templars may have brought the Fedeli some of these ideas, as well as the tradition of Solomon's Temple as the dwelling place of Wisdom (Sapientia). Indeed, there may have been an alliance between the Fedeli and the Templars.

As was common practice, in 1283 Dante attempted to contact the group by writing a poem to them. In it he described a dream of his in which Amor (Love) appeared with Beatrice, and he invited the Fedeli to interpret the vision. It begins:

Dante to the Fedeli d'Amore
To every heart which the sweet pain doth move,
  And unto which these words may now be brought
  For true interpretation and kind thought,
Be greeting in our Lord's name, which is Love.
    (tr. D. G. Rossetti)

Several people responded, including Guido Cavalcanti, who replied in identical meter and rhyme to Dante's poem. (Such exchanges of poetry were also common among the troubadours.) His reply begins:

Unto my thinking, thou beheld'st all worth,
  All joy, as much of good as man may know,
  If thou wert in his power who here below
Is honor's righteous lord throughout this earth.
    (tr. D. G. Rossetti)

Subsequently Dante was invited to join the Fedeli d'Amore, which he did. Guido eventually attracted Dante into "the Whites," his branch of the Guelph party, but Dante seemed to believe that art was a better means of social transformation. For art may create self-fulfilling prophecies, that is, prophecies that have the effect of bringing about the very conditions they predict. Such was the goal of the Commedia.


Province, Languedoc, Poitou: I will use these terms more or less synonymously for the part of southern France which gave birth to Occitan poetry (poetry from the region where oc meant "yes"). Technically, Province is the region east of the Rhône and Languedoc is west of it. Languedoc is part of Poitou, a region in west-central France. Poitiers was the capital of Poitou, which was part of (lower) Aquitaine.


Anderson, William. Dante the Maker. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.
de Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World, revised & augmented ed., tr. by Montgomery Belgion. New York: Pantheon, 1956.
Lindsay, Jack. The Troubadours and their World of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, London: Frederick Muller, 1976.

This page is http://www.cs.utk.edu/~mclennan/Classes/US310/Dante-Fedeli-d-Amore.html
©2001, Bruce MacLennan. Last updated 2001/4/1 12:32:10 PM